Mary

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Rainmak3r
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Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Fri Nov 08, 2019 8:30 pm

Hi all,

I've finally completed one of the many tracks I've been working on these past few weeks. I'm particularly excited about this, not only because it's the longest and more complex I've published so far (about 9 minutes), but also because it's the first one that also features some vocals (contributed by my youngest sister).

https://soundcloud.com/lminiero/mary

It tells the story of the last night of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, up to her execution. Her story is quite tragic, and definitely controversial as well: if you want to learn more, you better start digging on Wikipedia or some history book, as everyone has a different opinion on her life and actions, and her troubled relationship with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. That's why what I decided to focus on in this track was only her last night (after 18 years of imprisonment, she was sentenced to death and executed), with no judgement on anything before that.

If you're curious on the "why" of all this, at the cost of sounding "mystical", the idea to write a song about her came to me in a dream many years ago... In that dream, a boat carrying a woman sitting on a chair and a few men around her was traversing a river in the night, torches all across the shores; on one of the shores, a kid asked "who is that woman?", and his grandfather answered "that's the Queen of Scotland", and immediately after that the dream filled with a beautiful and loud choir, and I woke up. Unfortunately I forgot the choir harmony and notes right away, but I was left impressed: I didn't know about Mary I of Scotland at the time, so when I started reading about her (she obviously was the first Google result for "Queen of Scotland"! :mrgreen: ), the memory of the dream stayed with me up to this day, when I realized some of the themes I was composing could fit her story nicely.

I structured the track in different parts:

  1. At the beginning, an orchestra choir sketches one of the main themes, soon followed by a strings section. As you can guess, this is my "homage" to the dream I was mentioning before.
  2. Then, a more "traditional" folk ballad starts, which is where I added the first vocal parts to have Mary share some of her thoughts: a nyckelharpa (I would have preferred a hurdy gurdy, but couldn't find a good soundfont for that) and harpsichord start painting the picture, and are soon joined by bass, drums and an acoustic guitar. I guess my lyrics for the vocals are a bit naive (writing those was not as easy as I thought), but I think my sister did a great job bringing them to life! The tiny bell/glockenspiel arpeggio you can hear in a couple of parts is a homage to "Elizabeth" by Kamelot (incidentally about Elizabeth Bathory, not Queen Elizabeth I, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mzFjClstLA), a track I have always been fascinated by and that has a similar part.
  3. Night ends and dawn arrives, which means death is on its way: the bell is joined by some eerie strings, that turn in a short, painful strings theme.
  4. The theme leads to a more atmospheric section of the track: multiple sound effects (mostly collected on FreeSound.org) try to describe the guards coming to pick Mary from her cell to bring her to the scaffold, her walk towards the execution scene, an angry mob shouting at her every step of the way. A sad theme, introduced by a quiet pad, is repeated and built upon by different instruments to accompany all that.
  5. As soon as Mary is executed, the track changes completely, and a brass section introduces the final, and main, theme. It's the same theme the choir sketched initially, but celebratory now, since (as some more vocals in this section soon start to tell) she may be dead, but her memory is alive forever. The theme becomes more and more heavy and "noisy" (sorry, can't really ever put my metal soul to rest! :-D), up until the "triumphant" ending.
  6. Now, the song may have ended there, but I decided to still have it followed by a simple acoustic guitar playing the sad theme of part 4. in front of a fireplace; this small epilogue was meant to symbolise how her sad story would be still told over the centuries in books and songs. The approach used in this section also is partly a homage, specifically to the acoustic outro of "The Prophecy" by Iron Maiden (https://youtu.be/xwmB_bIJUHw?t=240).

As to the technical part of all this, it's mostly the same process I followed for my previous contributions, with a few differences.

  • As usual, I used Lilypond to write all the MIDI parts for all the instruments; I already explained on the Eurydice page why I didn't (and still don't) use Ardour directly for that, apart from tiny fixes. This time, though, I made use of a tool called "qmidiroute" to allow Frescobaldi (the Lilypond editor I use for composing) to take advantage of LinuxSampler, QSynth, ZynAddSubFx and other tools at the same time to render the MIDI generated by Lilypond during the composition process. It's a fantastic tool, as it allows you to route messages for different channels to different MIDI ports, and optionally rewrite parts of them; this way, I could tell Frescobaldi to send everything there (as opposed to, e.g., send everything to QSynth to the same soundfont as before), and let qmidiroute pass, e.g., strings to a channel in LinuxSampler, and the pad to ZynAddSubFx. This made the process much more organic, as now I could have a much more realistic preview of how it all needed to sound like right away, where before I would have needed to wait until importing the MIDI in Ardour and configure the MIDI tracks to get the same result with the right renderer. This allowed me to focus on the composition part up until the very end, and only then, when I was basically happy with the result, import the MIDI file in Ardour.
  • Mixing, fine tuning of the MIDI parts and recording of everything else was, as usual, done in Ardour. The orchestral instruments (choirs, strings, glockenspiel and brass section) were done via the "Virtual Playing Orchestra" SFZ, using LinuxSampler; the sustained nyckelharpa is also a SFZ, from the brilliant "Early Music Ensemble" library; the harpsichord is from the standard Fluidsynth soundfont, mostly because, weirdly enough, I couldn't get anything I liked more in any of the other libraries; the eerie strings you can hear briefly at the end of the ballad come from the free and excellent "Scary Strings" Windows VST by Spitfire Labs; finally, the pad in the atmospheric section is the amazing "Fantasy choir" from ZynAddSubFx.
  • Drums were, as usual, done with the sensational DrumGizmo and the Muldjord kit. Preparing the "quieter" drums in the first part was a bit of a challenge, since this kit is mostly for metal, but I think that playing with velocities it came out nicely.
  • Bass was, for the first time, a real bass (yeah, I finally bought one!).
  • For guitars, this time I used both an amplified acoustic guitar (ballad, outro) and electric guitars (atmospheric part, finale); acoustic guitars were recorded as-is, while electric guitars were processed using the usual mix of Rakarrack effects (three different clean tones in the atmospheric section) and Guitarix (the Running Wild preset for heavy tones in the finale). For the first time, instead of my Fender Stratocaster I used my EVH Wolfgang for all the electric guitar parts, and I really like how it sounds.
  • Vocals were recorded with my sister's Neewer condenser mic (NW-500). It was my very first experience with one of those, and I have to admit it was a bit painful. First of all, for some reason it refused to work with my Scarlett Solo: at first I thought it was because it lacked phantom power, but 1. the Scarlett Solo has a button to provide that, and 2. after throwing money away on an external phantom power provided it still wouldn't work. Eventually, I got it to work using a combo splitter and plugging it as a regular mic in the laptop (which provides the 5V it needs, with no need for phantom power). Apart from that, I think it will be obvious I have no clue on how to record vocals, as they sound much worse than the rest... besides, I'm pretty sure I could have greatly improved the way they sound in the mix, but after all I'm not entirely displeased with the result in the verses (apart from the P's that are a bit too loud). The vocals in the ending are a different picture, instead: they were supposed to be a mix of 4-5 voices and be quite powerful, but the end result was quite messy (mostly because it was supposed to include my ugly voice in the finale too, which sucks badly :lol: ), which is why I only left my sister harmonizing with herself in a much more subdued way. Unfortunately this also ended up with her voice mostly covered by the rest of the instruments... hopefully I'll learn how to handle vocals properly in the future.
  • Finally, I also decided to install and (ab)use the Dragonfly reverb plugins, since I had seen them mentioned in several different places: I actually used both the "Hall" and the "Room" reverb plugins, the former on all the orchestral parts (choirs, strings, brass), and the latter on everything else. I have to say thanks to Michael for his amazing job on those! While I've probably made more than one mistake in configuring them and the related aux tracks, I think their end result was quite impressive, and I'm really looking forward to use them even more in the future.

That's all... apologies for the once again extra-long dissertion, hope you'll enjoy the track and I'm looking forward to your feedback!

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Re: Mary

Postby milo » Sat Nov 09, 2019 4:34 am

Wow! That's pretty epic! An ambitious work, and well-executed, IMO.

The piece has good flow, like every part belongs, and the progression is logical. It tells the story well, and knowing the story helps the listener interpret the music. The story has emotional impact, and I think the emotion works in your telling of it.

The opening choir sounds pretty awesome. Great sound font, and excellent use of Dragonfly Reverb! The nyckelharpa sound is less convincing, I think. Your use of ambient sounds is very effective.

Vocals are hard to record, period. If this is your first attempt, then I think you did a good job. Your sister's voice has nice tonal properties. She should take some singing lessons - I think she could be pretty good. Did you put a compressor on the voice? That helps smooth over the loud consonants.

It would be nice to have a vocalist with a Scottish accent for this piece, but those are probably hard to come by in your neck of the woods. The foreign accent of the vocals is a bit distracting to a native English speaker. But you have to make do with what you have. (I have a few songs that could really use a Brian May guitar solo, but all I had to record was my own playing!)

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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sat Nov 09, 2019 9:36 am

milo wrote:Wow! That's pretty epic! An ambitious work, and well-executed, IMO.

The piece has good flow, like every part belongs, and the progression is logical. It tells the story well, and knowing the story helps the listener interpret the music. The story has emotional impact, and I think the emotion works in your telling of it.


Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it! I did try to invest a bit in the emotional aspects of the different parts, so it's good to know it didn't end up sounding too cheesy :D

milo wrote:The opening choir sounds pretty awesome. Great sound font, and excellent use of Dragonfly Reverb! The nyckelharpa sound is less convincing, I think. Your use of ambient sounds is very effective.


Yeah, I was surprised by how good choirs sounded. Looking around for a good choir soundfont, someone mentioned the ones from Sonatina, and I was impressed listening to a sample on YouTube. I then found out it had been incorporated in VPO as a SFZ, so I just used that. Choirs are available as a male-only choir, female-only choir, or a mixed one. I chose the mixed one for both choir tracks (each of whose has two vocal lines), since I assumed it would "automatically" pick the best voice for the octave the vocal lines were in. The Dragonfly Reverb was amazing there, I agree! It really made them sound even bigger, and like they were in a cathedral.

On the nyckelharpa, unfortunately that's the best sound I could get for what I really wanted in the song. Originally I wanted a hurdy gurdy (which I'm fascinated about), but I couldn't find anything: I only found a free Windows VST that sounded, quite honestly, horrible. As an alternative, I did know about Nyckelharpa as an instrument, which I like very much too: I stumbled upon the a sustained one from the "Early Music Collection", which I often go to as it has some really interesting instruments (the harp in Eurydice came from there too), and I thought it sounded close enough. I like how it doesn't sound completely in tune, which makes it more real, but its sustain is a bit unrealistic; I played a bit with velocities to make it sound a tiny bit better, but there was only so much I could do. At one point I wondered if some bagpipes might be a better fit there, but just like hurdy gurdy's, it's really hard to find good sounds for those, so I just stayed with the harpa.

milo wrote:Vocals are hard to record, period. If this is your first attempt, then I think you did a good job. Your sister's voice has nice tonal properties. She should take some singing lessons - I think she could be pretty good. Did you put a compressor on the voice? That helps smooth over the loud consonants.


My sister has been singing all her life, she took lessons for a long time and she's now a speech therapist and vocal coach for singers herself! She's amazing in songs she's sung all these past years, and she's a very good composer: she did warn me in advance that the vocal lines I sketched were a bit out of her depth, but changing the tone so far in the process (her vocals were the very last thing I added) would have been problematic since I had already recorded pretty much everything, so she went with it anyway like a soldier.

I put a compressor on the voice, but despite all your good suggestions in the past few weeks on that topic I still suck at it :lol: I used some values some post suggested as a starting point and stayed with those, which improved things a bit but only up to a certain extent. I'm pretty sure that everything starts from a good recording, including avoiding too many P's and T's popping out so much, and we did it all in our living room which isn't exactly a sound studio...

milo wrote:It would be nice to have a vocalist with a Scottish accent for this piece, but those are probably hard to come by in your neck of the woods. The foreign accent of the vocals is a bit distracting to a native English speaker. But you have to make do with what you have. (I have a few songs that could really use a Brian May guitar solo, but all I had to record was my own playing!)


That would have been perfect, but yeah, unfortunately we're about 2000km away from Glasgow here! :mrgreen:
You should have listened to my placeholder for the vocals, where it was me singing the lines: the accent was MUCH worse :lol:
And I can totally relate on the Brian May example... I have many ideas that sound great in my head, and that I'm just unable to play as they're supposed to... I guess this is probably why I've abused MIDI so much lately!

Thanks again for the kind words and the precious feedback! I always love these discussions.

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Re: Mary

Postby milo » Sat Nov 09, 2019 12:50 pm

I have never used a condenser mic, but that might be part of the issue. Those things can be crazy sensitive. Even with a dynamic mic you have to use a foam cap on the mic to reduce the percussive consonants. How close to the mic was she, and did you have anything covering the mic?

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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sat Nov 09, 2019 1:07 pm

milo wrote:I have never used a condenser mic, but that might be part of the issue. Those things can be crazy sensitive. Even with a dynamic mic you have to use a foam cap on the mic to reduce the percussive consonants. How close to the mic was she, and did you have anything covering the mic?


She was holding it like a normal mic, but I think you're right: the mic box included something that, in retrospect, was probably needed for better results (some sort of circular net that I guess you're supposed to put in front of the mic). Neither of us know much about it, as she bought the mic for a short project a few years ago but never used it much since.

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Re: Mary

Postby turbidh20 » Sat Nov 09, 2019 1:20 pm

That was excellent, very enjoyable, well done. I commend your ambition and skills :)
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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sat Nov 09, 2019 3:58 pm

turbidh20 wrote:That was excellent, very enjoyable, well done. I commend your ambition and skills :)


Thanks!

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Re: Mary

Postby psyocean » Sun Nov 10, 2019 7:13 am

Epic work! Really, impressive! Bravo, Author! \m/
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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sun Nov 10, 2019 9:07 am

psyocean wrote:Epic work! Really, impressive! Bravo, Author! \m/


Epic thanks! :D

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Re: Mary

Postby Digital Larry » Sun Nov 10, 2019 4:36 pm

Cool!

I trust you've heard Sandy Denny's song "Fotheringay".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbnLVvAJrec

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Re: Mary

Postby lilith » Sun Nov 10, 2019 4:51 pm

Great!!! :shock: Mixing could be better here and there. but the composition is an explosion of creativity.

.... explosion of creativity :lol:

Just missing some growls or black metal vocals.
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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sun Nov 10, 2019 10:02 pm

Digital Larry wrote:Cool!

I trust you've heard Sandy Denny's song "Fotheringay".

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbnLVvAJrec


Actually no, I didn't know it! A truly beautiful folk ballad, and very poetic lyrics that make my attempt at those even more naive...

The only song I knew about Mary was by Grave Digger: not their best effort, but not bad nonetheless https://youtu.be/swBnL-JLMjE

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Re: Mary

Postby Rainmak3r » Sun Nov 10, 2019 10:05 pm

lilith wrote:Great!!! :shock: Mixing could be better here and there. but the composition is an explosion of creativity.

.... explosion of creativity :lol:

Just missing some growls or black metal vocals.


Yep, I struggled with mixing a lot, especially when a lot of instruments were on at the same time... Hopefully I'll get better someday :D

And who knows, maybe someday I'll add some of those vocals as well! I mean, my favourite band these past few years has been Moonsorrow, with Septicflesh and Dimmu Borgir close seconds, so they're bound to influence me more sooner or later :)


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